One of Austria’s most recognizable exports, Empress Elisabeth of Austria – better known by her nickname “Sissi”/”Sisi” – has captured the hearts of the public ever since she was immortalized by actress Romy Schneider in a trilogy of 1950s romantic comedies. But while many are familiar with the image smiling from a thousand postcards, the historical person is far more intriguing. Here are five things you may not have known about Austria’s penultimate empress; for even more trivia on Sissi, stay tuned for part 2 (coming soon!)
1. She wasn’t intended to marry Emperor Franz Josef
Born on Christmas Eve, 1837, the future empress grew up between Munich and Possenhofen castle on lake Starnberg, Bavaria. A duchess from a side branch of the Royal House Wittelsbach, she enjoyed a carefree childhood, far from the constraints of court life. Her engagement with the Emperor of Austria happened quite by chance:
Seeking a way to expand her own influence at the Imperial court, her aunt, Archduchess Sophie of Bavaria, had initially selected Sissi’s elder sister Helene (Nene) as a suitable bride for her son, the 23-year old Franz Josef. Only 15 at the time, Sissi was simply escorting her sister and mother to Bad Ischl, where the young emperor planned to formally propose. However, the stern and quiet Nene didn’t leave much of an impression on Franz Josef; the younger and more cheerful Sissi, however, captured his heart immediately. And while Archduchess Sophie had reservations regarding her niece’s suitability for court, the emperor made it clear that he would marry Sissi – or no one. Ultimately, his mother conceded and the young couple was wed the following spring at Vienna’s Augustinerkirche, thrusting the young Elisabeth into the limelight.
2. She was a celebrity in her own time
Sissi’s fame did not start with Romy Schneider’s portrayal: she was world-famous in her time as a fashion icon and trendsetter. Tall (172 cm) and slender, she was considered one of the most beautiful women of her age and her personal style was often emulated, both within and outside of the empire. In particular, she was famous for her wasp waist, which ranged from 40-50 cm in circumference and was achieved through corsets and the practice of tightlacing. To further emphasize her delicate physique, she was among the first to ditch hoop skirts and petticoats, preferring a simpler, more slender silhouette. At 32, she began refusing to sit for portraits and photographs in an attempt to retain her youthful image; this only increased her mystique.
3. She was obsessed with her hair
While her waist was by far her most celebrated feature, the Empress was particularly proud of her thick chestnut locks, and made a point of never cutting them. In later years, her hair went down to the floor, and simply combing it took up several hours each morning; washing it was an even bigger operation that took up an entire day every three weeks. To keep it manageable, she sported extremely elaborate braided hairstyles created by her personal hairdresser, Fanny Feifalik, who she recruited from the Burgtheater. Never far from the Empress, Feifalik became one of her closest confidants; thank to her passing resemblance with the Empress, she was even used as a body double on occasion.
4. She dieted and exercised incessantly
Of course, maintaining such a slender figure did not come easy, and the Empress was known for fastidious dieting, following various trendy eating regimens of the 19th century including the orange diet, or subsisting off mainly milk and eggs. She often avoided meat, instead preferring veal juices cooked into a thin bouillon to keep her strength up. She also took steam baths to cut down her weight and olive oil baths to preserve her skin tone. The Empress had a habit of weighing herself up to three times a day; in the rare cases when she approached 50 kg, she went on crash diets. Exercise also played a big role in maintaining her beauty, and she had gymnasiums installed in all her residences; her dressing room in the Hofburg was equipped with rings and bars so she could practice gymnastics during her morning routine and can still be seen today. Despite her strict regimen, the Empress did indulge herself occasionally – she was partial to hearty Bavarian dishes and had a sweet tooth. Her favorite treat: violet-flavored ice cream, which is still offered today at Demel in her honor.
5. She was an accomplished Equestrian
Sissi’s favorite sport by far, however, was riding, and she acquired a reputation as a daredevil and one of the best equestrians of her age. She trained regularly in Vienna’s Spanish Riding School and rode extensively at the Royal Hungarian residence in Gödöllö. Of particular media interest at the time were her numerous riding excursions to the British Isles from 1876-1882, where she maintained several stables and participated in fox and stag hunts. A frequent riding companion was the famed British equestrian George “Bay” Middleton, a distant ancestor of the current Duchess of Cambridge. Once age and health problems made riding impossible, the Empress took up fencing and hiking instead, spending up to 8 hours walking and choosing her attendants according to their ability to keep up.
(Foto: © Schloß Schönbrunn Kultur- und Betriebsges.m.b.H., Foto: Lois Lammerhuber)